Barry Levinson talks about how the idea came to him, working with Robin Williams and the rhythm of filmmaking
As the director of one of my Top 5 favorite films of all time, I was elated when I was given the assignment of interviewing Barry Levinson. For me, it doesn't get much better than the director's first film Diner. However, this man has also helmed Tin Men, Rain Man, Good Morning, Vietnam, and that's just in the 1980s.
Making a career out of telling very personal character driven stories, Levinson recently worked with Robin Williams again on the political satire Man of the Year. This film sees Williams as Tom Dobbs, a talk show host who ends up becoming President of the United States. Utilizing his and Williams biting intelligence and wit, Levinson recently took some time out of his busy schedule to talk about making this film.
What attracted you to the material in Man of the Year?
Barry Levinson: You know what happens, there are certain ideas that sneak up on you that you want to pursue and you go from there. The idea came to me because there's been computer malfunctions, etc.., that you read about and I'm thinking, "Geez, we have this democracy, and we pride ourselves about how our vote counts, and we're not even sure if our vote does count." Those ideas mixed with what happens if a late night talk show host runs... there you have the basis of the piece.
Did the movie give you a way to show how you might like to see a Presidential campaign run?
Barry Levinson: I think what it says is that the way we're running them and what we're doing doesn't cut it. The idea that it's gonna cost that much money to run for office is eliminating too many competent and good people. It becomes about who's a good fund raiser? I don't believe that's the best candidate, who can raise the most money. There's too much money in the system. I think the problems that we're suffering are a direct result of too much money in the system.
Having done Good Morning, Vietnam with Robin Williams, do you feel like you know how to harness his creative energy for the camera?
Barry Levinson: Yeah, we've gotten along well. He's smart, he's disciplined, he had all the characteristics that would be beneficial for this movie. We've known each other through the years so it was great to be able to work with him again.
Do you think that the political process, by it's very nature, is ripe for comedy?
Barry Levinson: Yeah, it certainly is ripe for it because it's done every day on television. I did Wag the Dog in 1997. What I wanted to do with this one was not repeat that stuff and do the same kind of piece. Not doing a satire, which this isn't. Not being as cynical as that movie. So there's a very different kind of take on the political arena, but the political arena is a valid area to work in.
You write and you also direct what was the writing process like for Man of the Year? Did you watch shows like The Daily Show? Or, did you just take what you've seen and what's been percolating in your head?
Barry Levinson: Yeah, I think it's just what I've seen and then you work from there.
The actors in Man of the Year... actually in all of your movies all seem very natural. Do you offer a lot of direction or do you see what they bring to the table and go from there?
Barry Levinson: Well, it's a combination of elements. You have to see what the actors are capable of and then you need to work within that. You let them see where they can go and then you maneuver them to where you think you need to go.
People always talk about film being a visual medium, yet you've been very successful creating films that have a lot of dialogue. What do you think is the trick to pulling that off because your films are also visual?
Barry Levinson: It's a chore you know? Sometimes I keep thinking, "Gosh, if you did some movies where you could get some violence in there it's whole lot easier." Because (laughs)... you can take a breather from the dialogue and go, "Okay, well that may not work that well but this big shoot out is going to be pretty cool." (Laughs) When you don't have that you're constantly having to say, "The dialogue is interesting but just by showing people talking it's not gonna cut it. They're gonna get tired. They're gonna get bored. How do we keep entertaining the audience? What do we need to do visually to keep them stimulated?"
So you work from a disadvantage in a sense because you're not falling back on action. You have to create action, the dialogue is action and you have to find a way to propel your movie without that adrenaline thrust that comes from those types of films.
How do you find that? Is that something that's only in your head as you're writing the movie? Or, is it there all the way through? As you're shooting and editing...
Barry Levinson: You need to keep it in mind at all times. If you're writing it, you've gotta keep it in mind in the writing process. When you're shooting it you need to constantly be aware of, "What are you going to be doing in this given scene, to help this scene not be this person talks to this person about that thing." What's going to give us some forward momentum? What are we going to do to these particular scenes so it doesn't all sort of bog down. You're constantly thinking about the choreography of it throughout to create a rhythm. It all needs rhythm.
Having done Diner, Tin Men and Liberty Heights, might we see a 4th film about Baltimore?
Barry Levinson: I think if I get lucky, I'd like to do the novel I wrote Sixty-Six, as the final Baltimore piece.
Does that have any of the characters from the movies or is that a separate piece?
Barry Levinson: It's a separate piece. It's closer to my work in local television and getting ready to head to Los Angeles. It's closer to my story but it does have multiple stories in it like the others do.
What are you working on now?
Barry Levinson: I'm working on a thing called What Just Happened? Which is a piece about Hollywood that producer Art Linson wrote. It's about a producer and that's what I'm in preproduction on now.
Man of the Year comes to DVD February 13 from Universal Home Entertainment.
Dont't forget to also check out: Man of the Year